Getting the LEDs Out

July 1, 2011
Moving from promising technology to proven applications is a long and rocky road.

Solid-state lighting may save the free world. Someday. Probably not this month.

“There's a whole lot of excitement about LED lighting,” says Jim Frank, division manager of Facility Solutions Group, who runs the electrical contracting side of the company's offices in Shawnee, Kan. “There's no product and no jobs, but there's a lot of excitement.”

He was joking, sort of.

The reality is that the whole lighting industry, and the broader electrical and construction and design and energy-efficiency markets of the world as well, are all waiting and watching for the light-emitting diode (LED) of their dreams — the one that will finally make incandescent, fluorescent, HID and all the other incumbent lighting technologies obsolete — to emerge onto the market in a blaze of light.

That lamp technology, which surely will be as dazzling as the shock of seeing Edison's incandescent lights switched on in a world that had only seen gas lamps, oil lamps, candles, campfires, lightning, stars and fireflies, still lies hidden in a research lab somewhere, if it exists at all today. What we have instead, so far, is a swarm of early attempts of constantly improving quality marching steadily to market and hordes of marketing and salespeople at all levels of the industry laying the groundwork to build demand.

The demand is growing. When Electrical Wholesaling surveyed distributors a couple of months ago to gather data for the annual Top 200 listing of the largest distributors (EW June 2011), we asked some questions about newer technologies. What were customers asking about? What were distributors putting on their shelves? Of the list we gave them to choose from, including solar photovoltaic panels, small-scale wind turbines, home-scale generators, home-theater components and electric vehicle supply equipment, LED lighting was far and away the most cited technology in terms of both talk and stock.

You're starting to see LEDs all over, in vehicle tail-lights, traffic signals, signs, video displays and Christmas trees, and of course there's the one that flashes from your phone at night on the other side of the bedroom, but the LEDs that will light your office and your garage at a reasonable cost are still in the works.

Conservative and Radical

Most of the buzz in LED lighting right now is around technologies intended to replace incumbent light sources. This is partly a function of the way technologies develop and it's at least partly political.

Lighting manufacturers have fresh confirmation of just how much the general public loves its 100W Edison-based incandescent space heaters from the political backlash against the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) that goes into effect next year. The law raises the minimum energy efficiency requirements for lamps in such a way as to make standard incandescents illegal. Much of the hand-wringing and lamp-hording has been couched as a rejection of curly compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) and their shortcomings in color, dimmability, startup time and disposal issues (well, that and a rejection on principle of government intrusion into the people's light sockets), but the manufacturers recognize that CFLs are only a bridge technology to keep the lights on until LED replacement lamps are ready for prime time.

To speed the transition along, the EISA authorized the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to establish the Bright Tomorrow Lighting Prize competition, aka the “L Prize,” to challenge the industry to develop solid-state replacement technologies for 60W incandescent lamps and PAR 38 halogens. The L Prize specifies technical requirements, including that the replacement technology should use just 17 percent of the energy used by most incandescent lamps in use today. The winner will be recognized with a cash award and federal purchasing contracts, and featured in utility energy-efficiency programs. A future L Prize program also authorized by EISA will promote a new “21st Century Lamp,” but specifications for that prize have yet to be set.

As of this spring's Lightfair conference, only one product had been submitted for the L Prize, a 60W incandescent replacement entered by Philips Lighting that had completed the first phase of the evaluation process, short-term photometric testing, and was about a year into long-term testing at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), Seattle. DOE said one other manufacturer had signaled its intent to enter a lamp in the competition in the near future.

Earlier this month, DOE awarded $15 million to support eight new research and development projects that will speed up development of a solid-state replacement for the 60W incandescent lamp.

“The selected research is focused on advancing core technology, developing new products, and expanding domestic manufacturing capacity. For example, Arizona State University-Tempe will attempt to demonstrate an efficient, stable white OLED using a single emitter, which will simplify the device structure and in turn reduce costs for the consumer. And, Philips Lumileds Lighting Company, LLC in California will use high-voltage, low-current, LED designs to simplify driver requirements, improve driver efficiency and reduce system cost. This is the seventh round of DOE funding for solid-state lighting core technology research and product development, and the second time that DOE has funded solid-state lighting manufacturing projects,” said the DOE's website at LED specialist Cree Lighting also received $1.6 million for product development as part of the award.

Perhaps the most important contribution DOE is making to solid-state lighting is the development of the Commercially Available LED Product Evaluation and Reporting (CALiPER) program, a testing regime for verification of manufacturer claims regarding LED lamp performance. Put in place to keep inadequate product performance from harming public perceptions of solid-state lighting technology, CALiPER has mostly shown just how far the lighting industry has to go before it can claim to have solved the puzzle.

A DOE report issued this spring on progress in the L Prize competition reported that LED lamp performance continues to underwhelm: “Legislation requires the L Prize 60 W replacement lamp to produce at least 900 lumens. A December 2010 study of 56 LED A-lamp replacement products (drawing on a mix of CALiPER testing and Lighting Facts data) found that while most products produce between 200 and 600 lumens (equivalent to 25- to 40-watt incandescent lamps), several products were in the 700- to 800-lumen range — a significant change from the previous six months.

“Efficacy of all of the products studied continued to vary widely, with most products measuring between 25 and 70 lumens per watt (lm/W), four products achieving 75 lm/W, and one reaching 89 lm/W. But while those products at the higher end of the efficacy range compete with compact fluorescent lamps, the highest had a cool correlated color temperature (CCT) of 5000K. On the whole, CCTs are getting warmer, with 36 LED products in the 2700 to 3000K range, while 12 exceeded 5000K. Color rendering (CRI) for LED replacements has improved, with most products achieving around 80 and six products exceeding 90.”

The Illuminating Engineering Society (IES), which is the technical standards-setting side of the lighting industry, has established two standards for lamp performance, LM-79, which sets parameters for testing electrical and photometric performance of LED lamps, and LM-80, which presents a way of measuring the lamps' lumen maintenance over time.

DOE is also supporting development of a solid-state replacement for what's considered the ultimate “low-hanging fruit” in the lighting world: the workhorse linear fluorescent lamp that lights commercial, institutional and industrial spaces and basement workshops from coast to coast (see sidebar, “LED Replacements for Linear Fluorescents Still Have Far to Go, Say DOE Researchers,” page 19).

Inspiring as these technological advances may be, replacing troffers of linear fluorescents with tubular arrays of LED chips is a little like putting vinyl veneer on chipboard furniture to make it look sort of like hand-rubbed walnut, just because that's what the buyer is accustomed to seeing. Never mind the mind-boggling new things space-age plastics and adhesives could do, you have to give the customer what he wants, or something that looks like it.

Over the longer term, in the not-all-that-distant future where your great-granddaughter will be complaining about the distributor across town undercutting her price on conduit, solid-state lighting will have taken forms you and I can't quite imagine. Actually it will be sooner than that.

LEDs and their off-shoots — especially organic LED (OLED) sheets — make it possible to do things with light that have never been possible before. LEDs give users and lighting designers fine-grained digital control over color and intensity so that making radical changes to the look of a room or a facade is more a matter of changing software settings than of swapping out bulbs and ballasts for a different color temperature or dimming profile.

Who's Buying

The market is still in its infancy, but there are sub-sectors of the economy where customers are more likely to take a chance on a new technology that promises long-term savings and a certain show-and-tell cachet.

Corporations staking their image on sustainability

Companies that want to be seen on the cutting edge of sustainability are installing LED lighting even in some cases where incumbent technologies would give them a much faster return on investment (ROI). From huge corporate campuses to networks of chain retail stores and restaurants, a growing number of companies are giving LEDs a try. They want to be seen as supporting development of new green technologies, and presumably the return on this marketing message offsets the greater cost.

Government at all levels

The federal government and many state governments have embraced solid-state lighting for their facilities as both a demonstration of environmental awareness and a benefit of their ability to pursue returns on a longer-term horizon. Municipal governments are also prime targets for sales of technologies such as LED roadway lighting.

Schools and universities

For much the same reasons as state and local governments, schools can take a longer view on paybacks from efficiency and gain recognition for their commitment to new sustainable technologies.

High-end residential

There's a certain amount of pride of ownership that comes with being the first adopter of a new technology, and homeowners and builders of residences large enough to justify the rates of a professional lighting designer have begun to embrace the flexibility and point source sparkle of some LED products.

Where LEDs Win Today

Solid-state lighting still has far to go before it can replace general-purpose lighting, but in a few niche applications, the technology already is providing competitive returns versus incumbent lighting technologies. Essentially any application that doesn't require throwing light across large distances, that benefits from color flexibility, low heat generation and low maintenance is a candidate, says Jim Frank of FSG, and that's the direction the market is evolving today.


The color range and flexibility of LED lighting has already proven to be a huge draw for makers of lighted signage.

Cold storage

Wholesale and retail food-handling facilities, medical facilities and industrial plants where being able to see in sub-freezing or sub-zero environments is a critical requirement have embraced LEDs' tolerance for the cold and their lack of heat generation as a way to improve the efficiency of cold-storage units.

Roadway lighting

This is an emerging area, but manufacturers see a natural fit between LEDs' long, low-maintenance lifespan and any application where you have to dispatch a crew and a big truck to change a lightbulb.

Who's Selling

The speed with which all this change is coming makes product development in other parts of the electrical market look glacial. But we're not just dealing with old-line electrical companies here. New entrants in the lighting market are coming from the ecosystem that produces microprocessors, flat-panel displays and other components of information technology, a species of competitor with a freakishly high metabolism.

The “big three” lamp companies — GE, Philips and Osram Sylvania (Siemens) — are finding themselves competing with technology companies the electronics side of their conglomerations know well, but whom their lighting businesses have never had to face. Samsung, Sharp, Toshiba, LG are just a few. Add to that formidable phalanx a horde of guerilla start-ups that already have established themselves as major players (companies like Cree and Lighting Science Group) or hope to establish themselves among that crowd, plus all the fly-by-night manufacturers and importers who send us spam every day touting their LEDs, and you have a chaotic mix that looks very exciting to an outside observer but will make or break the careers of rising stars in the thick of the fight.

The competitors from the IT world approach the market differently, with a greater focus on technical factors such as chip performance and less institutional knowledge of the nuances of how light falls on a textured surface and how that affects the experience of a human being living in that space. That knowledge can be acquired by hiring indigenous lighting people and by studying the work of researchers at places like Rensselaer Polytechnic's Lighting Research Center, Troy, N.Y., but for now GE, Philips and Sylvania have the edge in lighting knowledge, not to mention in their established position in all the crevices of the lighting market where purchasing decisions are made.

To further improve their position, the lighting giants have been buying or forming alliances with lighting fixture manufacturers. The performance of a solid-state light source can't be confined to the workings of a lamp, but requires integrating the characteristics of the whole system from controls to power source to heat-sink to microchip to enclosure. Philips' acquisition of Genlyte a couple of years back and Sylvania's more recent moves into LED-powered outdoor lighting fixtures suggest that the market will eventually shift from a concentration on replacement lamps to the whole-systems approach.

Fixture manufacturers, meanwhile, are striking their own deals with LED developers and niche lighting companies to gain a better position to offer a complete solid-state lighting systems package as well (see sidebar, “Hubbell and Hella Team Up on LED Lighting,” page 20).

How It Plays Out

The category-wrecking LED technology that will change general-purpose lighting forever is probably not that far off. Once the “iPhone of lighting” does emerge and prove itself both in utility and economics, and given the lighting market's rapidly rising metabolic rate, we can probably expect the market to shift from exotic new technology to commodity status in the blink of an eye. It may be sad when that day comes and all the excitement of developing and introducing new unimagined technologies lies behind us.

It won't really be all that sad for distributors, because commodity goods are certainly in the comfort zone of low-margin, volume-driven distribution business models. But for now, all that lies ahead of us and we don't quite know what it will look like. In the meantime, enjoy the ride.

LED Replacements for Linear Fluorescents Still Have Far to Go, Say Doe Researchers

The companies developing LED lighting to replace incumbent technologies salivate at the thought of being the one to introduce a viable, high-efficiency, cost-effective replacement for the ubiquitous linear fluorescent troffer. New products aimed at this goal seem to appear almost daily, yet despite millions of dollars spent on research, none to date has even come close.

Researchers from Pacific Northwest National Laboratories (PNNL) told a Web audience last month that the new products get closer all the time, but in their evaluations these replacement LEDs still have far to go. Jason Tuenge and Eric Richman of PNNL in Seattle discussed their findings in a Webcast hosted by the Department of Energy's Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy (EERE) program June 20.

What they've found is that manufacturers introducing solid-state lamps as replacements for linear fluorescents make a lot of lofty claims with very little data to back it up. In general, the look of the lighting the LED units deliver is getting closer to that of the fluorescents in color rendering index (CRI) and correlated color temperature (CCT). Efficiency is also getting closer, but to truly save energy the LEDs would have to show input power of less than 28W because most fluorescent fixtures are under-driven, said Tuenge. In many cases, these LEDs are only able to save energy in comparison with incumbent fluorescents by delivering lower light levels. Their efficacy, measured in lumens-per-watt, are about the same, at best. And when you factor in the economics, with LED prices of $63 to $120 competing with fluorescents at $2 per tube, it's not even close. Not yet.

What became clear, though, was that the progress being made by manufacturers is moving very quickly. Test results improve significantly in just a few months' time.